Sargent or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Light

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Readers may not be familiar with this different, but flavorful and even exotic side to the painter that is now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Sargent may seem old news nowadays. We get it, the portraits are one of a kind and Sargent’s cavalier style make us all intoxicated, yes? Well, yes and no. I mean, after seeing this showing one cannot help but feel that Sargent sits on that galactic wheel that turns the likes of Monet and Renoir. Sargent is certainly much better. There are some works in this exhibit which are absolute screamers. And in the end they make one wonder, why is Sargent not considered one of the better Impressionists? I want to say there is a endearing attitude to Sargent’s works. They are more a journey than anything. The brushstrokes will carry the viewer to some destination that is ripe with colors that break all convention. And this journey is what the curatorship at the MFA has effectively executed for the public. Although I do sometimes wonder at certain choices that are made by that team. Why, oh why in all that is holy do audio tour guides have to be a necessity? I have seen this pandering done before in no place less holy than Westminster Abbey. Even the Churchill War Rooms has succumbed to these shambolics. People going about as if they were sliced out of pages from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” do not please the temperament of this art goer. Obviously, with such a blockbuster exhibit, there would naturally be plenty of people. The first four rooms were like a serge of combatants landing on Iwo Jima. I remember people in throngs around the watercolor of the Bedouins. While I no doubt sound pretentious for saying this, it is difficult to get into an artwork when there are many people trying to engage in the same works. I admittedly went at a quick pace through these rooms. Yet, towards the end I found myself basked in an oasis of sunshine.

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In the exhibit there are 92 watercolors. It’s a large number, and one that traverses through different places and items of note. Harbors, quarries, streams, the Alps, the Middle East and villas are all intertwined into this thrilling grand vista tour. It is for this point that there is one criticism of these watercolors. It is by Modernist critic Roger Fry who says, “Certainly, on these holidays what he sees is exactly what the average upper-class tourist sees. Everything is as striking as it is obvious.” I would not say Fry’s criticism is entirely wrong. After all, Sargent did like Monet and with Monet, there is no real contemplative inquiry. Still, I would rather view the mad dream-like quality of these works. There is this obsessiveness that fuels the works throughout. It’s like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” on canvas. It’s the only way to make sense of this splendid maelstrom of light. Maybe Sargent was plunging into a state of mind where only the likes of the Post-Impressionists had been. Just not as dark. No, not nearly as dark!

Sargent is primarily seen as one of the great portrait painters. It wouldn’t be a misconception to rank him up with the likes of Rubens or Hals. He certainly has as much heart. And his heart can be seen in the surface texture to his watercolors that is not only just palpable, but honest. There are flashes of sunlight, but they are well contrasted with an opaque color. It makes me wonder if the Impressionist theory is more suited to watercolors, where a white stretch of the canvas can be left bare and colors mixed to such a degree that they do create an effective display of light. And there are some that are pleasing along those lines. I lost myself in some of those watercolors, and I’m still just barely finding my way back. His villa ones are engrossing. I can feel the air, the sunlight and the comfort of these paintings. For me, this is the awakening of the Impressionist pulse in me that I thought I did not have.

Sargent’s technique was certainly American in many respects. He really represented that looseness which is associated with those artists. His watercolors reflect that trait. Being an expatriate, Sargent was familiar with the European scene, but I do not think he ever really ignored the American side to himself.

There are watercolors in this exhibit that are intoxicating. I never felt as if Sargent ever displaced a stream of light in these works. The backdrop of the watercolors seemingly flowed with ease and tranquility in places such as the great Italian villas. The opaqueness of the trees and statues and the brilliant bisque of the light make these locations captivating. Shadows are always being chased by light, the stonework never seems stable, but it collides with the color and light in such a manner that there is this looseness that never seems to betray the viewer. Is is for that, that I can really feel the pull of these works. Every facet seems to compliment each other, like an orchestra. Even if I have struggled to see the the greatness in Impressionism in the past, I can begin to realize what it tries to achieve. It is not so much always reproducing the light, but also creating an atmosphere that is orchestrated through color, light and hopefully shadow as well. This is what makes these watercolors exhilarating. Sargent realizes that contrasting the light with opaqueness can add to the effect. With other Impressionists, there only seems to be full frontal light attacking the viewer. I feel it makes for a hostile experience. The lack of this is what makes these watercolors more appealing and the amazing light more bearable. Hopefully, some will now begin to realize that Sargent wasn’t just a great portrait painter, but a great orchestrator.

After leaving the MFA, I went to the Gardner. Surely an enchanting palace (when one isn’t tumbling in the dark that is). However, in one of the last rooms there appears a Sargent portrait which seems like a shot in the dark. The light is sprayed all over this portrait of the founder of the museum – Isabella Stewart Gardner – and one can tell it is a good portrait. The splendid curve to the arms and the effervescent background make one think nothing less than that Gardner was surely an angel. But that’s the point, nothing more and nothing less of a majestic portrayal that would be eaten up by the critics and the public. It was not totally risky. The watercolors are. This is why I think Sargent should be considered one of the top Impressionists. I would rate Sargent above the likes of Monet and Renoir, who have not convinced me of their skill. They are surely important, but I think this exhibit will show to the critics and the public that an artist no worse than them deserves a place among the elite Impressionists.

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